Mahtab Hussain was working at the National Portrait Gallery when he first realised that none of the work surrounding him reflected his own experience as a British Asian. “It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was invisible in these spaces, spaces that I love and hold so dear in my life,” he notes. “I thought I would find those artists while working in a museum environment, but shockingly I never did, so in 2008 I decided swap sides and become an artist to help bridge this gap.”
Since making the jump, Hussain has been the creative force behind You Get Me?, a long-running photo series that explores issues of identity and displacement among young, British Asian men through stark, intimate portraiture. Beginning in Birmingham – where he grew up – You Get Me later expanded into London and Nottingham, with Hussain stopping individuals in the street to photograph them, while speaking to them about their own battles for a sense of self. The interviews conducted will appear in an accompanying book of the same name.
Ahead of its opening at Autograph ABP on May 4, we spoke to Hussain about class, masculinity and how perceptions of Muslims have changed in modern Britain.
Why did you settle on ‘You Get Me’ as the exhibition’s titular phrase?
Mahtab Hussain: The phrase came about when I was transcribing the interviews, but also widely in the many conversations I had on the streets. Some say it’s a quintessentially black expression, and in a way I’m commenting on this, questioning why many young British Asian males connect with the black urban experience. Hip-hop, particularly – which talks about poverty, hopelessness and the struggles of life – gives them a sense of collective belonging in western society. I think what solidified this connection were the towering figures of Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali, two great black, Muslim icons who articulated the struggles of black and brown communities living in the white man’s world.
But the phrase embodies it all. It can be aggressive, but it expresses a glimmer of vulnerability and uncertainty too. Do you understand me? Do you know where I’m coming from? Because it seems that no one does.
How have you found that young, male Muslims experiences with displacement differ to that of young, female Muslims?
Mahtab Hussain: I feel that women are in a much better place – they have a greater sense of balance with their religious identity, their sense of self and feeling towards wider society, and so they are flourishing amid very complex identity formations. When interviewing women, they were incredibly articulate too, focused on careers and education in ways which simply leave the men behind, which itself is a huge subject. Like their white counterparts, they are attempting to readdress society's general imbalance of inequality, and amid a community which often insists on maintaining traditional female roles in the face of western modernity.
“I didn’t want to make portraits that made you feel sorry for these young men. I wanted to show that despite the pressures, these men have still found a way to hold themselves up as proud and dignified people, albeit with complex and often conflicting identities” – Mahtab Hussain
What kind of things of things did you hear from the subjects that particularly stood out to you?
Mahtab Hussain: I heard how difficult their lives were, how misunderstood they were, and how angry they were with the media and politicians. How they were tired of continually being asked about their identity and proving how British they were, while at the same time being told how un-British they are. But interestingly, though some of these men talked about the struggles, their lives were actually manageable. Crucially, it was never about them as individuals, it was about ‘we’, it was ‘us’ – they talked about the struggle as a collective, they were carrying the burden of the global Muslim experience. I didn’t want to make portraits that made you feel sorry for these young men. I wanted to show that despite the pressures, these men have still found a way to hold themselves up as proud and dignified people, albeit with complex and often conflicting identities.
How have you seen perceptions of the British Asian identity change since you first started the series?
Mahtab Hussain: I think the perception has just gotten worse. Today, with what feels like increasing terrorist activities at home, and the formation of ISIS, the community is more heavily labelled as extremist. The Asian grooming gangs were hugely negative too of course, and so now we carry the rapists and paedophiles label as well. And the statistics of Muslims in British prisons is pretty alarming, since we make up 14.6% of the overall prison population, even though our total population in the UK is roughly 4.8%. And because we are demonised in pretty much every facet of society, we are consequently not allowed a voice. Instead, we are generically labelled as sympathisers to extremism – which is categorically untrue.
But, I do believe things are changing. I feel society has had enough of hearing this constant negative narrative, and crucially, individuals from the community are starting to stand up to these attacks, so I am hopeful.
To what extent does class play a role in this idea of identity?
Mahtab Hussain: I think it plays a critical role. In general, the working-class communities of Britain have had to go through real change. Essentially, from the 80’s onwards, it was an incredibly destructive time for British society as a whole. Margaret Thatcher and her government purposely broke down community and fostered the idea that there is no such thing as society – livelihoods were destroyed and the unions were dismantled, in direct conflict with the working-class concept of community and family. From a migrant perspective, this notion of individualism crushed one of the defining pillars of their culture, one that advocated for a supportive, collective society. This era jarred with them considerably as they eventually experienced the same loss of community and society, alongside feelings of alienation.
With each image, the description that accompanies is surface and paratactic, not giving anything anyway. Was this a nod to the idea of a collective, generalising British Asian narrative?
Mahtab Hussain: Yes, but there’s more. Artistically my titles are paramount to the art work – each portrait is an art work, a fine art portrait and their descriptive titles help crystallize this vision. By maintaining anonymity, these sitters are elevated to a place where they are essentially immortalised in the art-historical narrative, while becoming the embodiment of their entire community. I also wanted to reclaim the scientific apparatus regarding the colonial experience – I wanted to discuss how ‘my people’ were systematically de-humanised by similar titles in the past. I'm taking ownership of these past titles, and as my work becomes part of the art-historical narrative, I choose my power as an artist to do this, turning it on its head, while at the same time highlighting to those who are unaware that this type of labelling occurred and was an explicit form of white supremacy.
You’ve spoken about how the series isn’t about religion. Do you feel that religion is often used as a scapegoat term when discussing these issues?
Mahtab Hussain: If we really strip it back and look at what the work is addressing, I believe that fundamentally it is a comment on cultural differences. If you bring religion into the discussion, it becomes a toxic and simplistic argument between ‘them’ and ‘us’, which is why its narrative has been so successful. Removing religion and stripping things back is a very difficult thing to do because Muslims have had no choice but to take on their religious identity as their core sense of self.
We are told that British culture is under attack. It’s not under attack, it’s simply changing, just as it always has, but perhaps not into the vision held by certain sectors of society. But, I firmly believe that the youth of tomorrow will advocate for unity. The young often speak about the difficulty posed by the duality of their identity, however, I want to show them that they are the future, and wholly part of a new global culture which embodies numerous fundamentally conflicting identities. This is where we are going, and we need to embrace the ride because there nothing we can do about it.
Follow Niall Flynn on Twitter here @nwflynn